Interpreting the Crisis: Doreen Massey and Stuart Hall Discuss Ways of Understanding the Current Crisis

By Hall, Stuart; Massey, Doreen | Soundings, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Interpreting the Crisis: Doreen Massey and Stuart Hall Discuss Ways of Understanding the Current Crisis


Hall, Stuart, Massey, Doreen, Soundings


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Doreen There are many different ways of thinking about the current crisis, but certainly one useful way is to think about the present as a conjuncture-this way of analysing was very productive in the discussions about Thatcherism in the late 1970s and 1980s in Marxism Today and elsewhere, in which you played a leading role. (1) Perhaps we should start by thinking about what conjunctural analysis is, and how it differs from other kinds of analysis.

Stuart It's partly about periodisation. A conjuncture is a period during which the different social, political, economic and ideological contradictions that are at work in society come together to give it a specific and distinctive shape. The post-war period, dominated by the welfare state, public ownership and wealth redistribution through taxation was one conjuncture; the neoliberal, market-forces era unleashed by Thatcher and Reagan was another. These are two distinct conjunctures, separated by the crisis of the 1970s. A conjuncture can be long or short: it's not defined by time or by simple things like a change of regime-though these have their own effects. As I see it, history moves from one conjuncture to another rather than being an evolutionary flow. And what drives it forward is usually a crisis, when the contradictions that are always at play in any historical moment are condensed, or, as Althusser said, 'fuse in a ruptural unity'. Crises are moments of potential change, but the nature of their resolution is not given. It may be that society moves on to another version of the same thing (Thatcher to Major?), or to a somewhat transformed version (Thatcher to Blair); or relations can be radically transformed.

Gramsci and Althusser, who helped us to think in this way, were primarily interested in such moments of major ruptural crisis (like 1917), when the 'organic' relations of society-especially the economic structure-were deeply reshaped. Gramsci thought the conjunctural level less significant than the organic. But he does also talk about using the notion of conjuncture in a broader, more methodological way: as a way of marking significant transitions between different political moments; that is to say, to apply it as a general system of analysis to any historical situation. And that is how I use it now. In Policing the Crisis we tried to look at the postwar period, which-despite its many contradictory aspects-was a conjuncture dominated by what has been called the post-war, social-democratic consensus. This political 'settlement' came apart in the crisis upheavals of the 1970s. Thatcherism, neoliberalism, globalisation, the era dominated by market forces, brutally 'resolved' the contradictions and opened a new conjuncture.

The question is, can we look at the present situation in that way? When does it begin? Has it been through a crisis before? What sort of crisis is this? Is it temporary? Is it going to transform things but not very deeply, followed by a return to 'business as usual'? Is it what is called a passive revolution, when none of the social forces are able to enforce their political will and things go stumbling along in an unresolved way? John Major's government was such a moment, when things that had been inaugurated by Thatcherism were in serious difficulties, but were patched together by the dominant classes, to hold the Tories in power for a few more years, without any serious challenge from below.

Doreen One of the reasons for needing to understand the structural character of the current conjuncture is that, as you say, it's not predetermined what the outcome will be, or what will happen. And this kind of analysis gives us some purchase on understanding the range of potential outcomes.

Stuart I agree. It forces you to look at many different aspects, in order to see what the balance of social forces is and how you might intervene, or have a better idea of how to intervene effectively. So is this crisis about a real shift in the balance of social forces? …

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